Congress presses FDA to let folic acid be added to corn mesa flour

More than 40 members of Congress, led by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, urged the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday to move quickly on action that could reduce devastating birth defects in the Hispanic community, including those seen in three Central Washington counties.

In a letter to Dr. Stephen Ostroff, the acting commissioner of the FDA, Beutler and others called for the agency to allow folic acid, a crucial B vitamin, to be added voluntarily to corn masa flour, a staple in Hispanic diets.

The move is aimed at preventing so-called neural tube defects, or NTDs, including spina bifida and anencephaly. Since 2010, at least 42 families in Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties have lost babies to anencephaly, a condition in which fetuses develop with parts of their brains and skulls missing. About 60 percent of the cases have occurred in Hispanic women, state records show.

State health officials have identified no cause for the defects, but use of folic acid early in pregnancy, often before a woman knows she’s pregnant, is known to help halt them.

“Preventable NTDs continue to occur in the United States, particularly among families in the Hispanic community,” the letter stated. “Public health experts hypothesize that these higher rates are linked to the fact that corn masa flour, the staple grain in the diet of most individuals of Hispanic descent, is still not fortified with folic acid.”

The move was sponsored by the chairs of the Congressional Maternity Care Caucus and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Conference. In addition to Beutler, the letter was put forward by Lucille Royal-Allard, D-Calif.; Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.; and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.

Beutler took action after reading a Seattle Times investigation in December detailing issues surrounding the birth defects in Central Washington, said Amy Pennington, a spokeswoman.

For 20 years, the FDA has required that enriched wheat and rice flours be fortified with folic acid, a move aimed at preventing the defects. After the rule took effect in 1996, rates of NTDs fell by 36 percent in the U.S., preventing about 1,300 cases a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

At the time, corn masa flour was excluded from the rule, partly because the grain was not as widely used as now. Since then, the Hispanic population in the U.S. has climbed sharply.

Hispanic women are about 20 percent more likely to have babies with NTDs than Anglo women, the CDC has found. Corn masa is used to make popular foods like tortillas and corn chips.

A petition led by the March of Dimes and other groups urging corn masa fortification has been pending at the FDA for nearly four years. The Times stories detailed final tests demanded by the FDA before the agency would agree to consider the move. They also found that state health officials may have missed chances to find clues to the rare and fatal birth defects.

“We are extremely pleased with the support from the Hispanic Caucus and other representatives for fortification,” said Cynthia Pellegrini, March of Dimes senior vice president for public policy and government affairs.

Through a spokeswoman, Ostroff said he would respond directly to the members of Congress.

The agency’s decision about voluntary folic-acid fortification was originally expected in mid-January, but FDA officials requested an additional 90 days allowed by law.

“We look forward to FDA’s decision by mid-April,” Beutler’s letter said.

[This story was originally published by The Seattle Times.]

Photo by Andrew Bardwell via Flickr.